The Preeminence of Prudence – Part 3 (Means and Ends)
Updated: Apr 11
“Conservatives are guided by their principle of PRUDENCE.” Russell Kirk – Ten Conservative Principles
From ancient times to modern, many political theorists and philosophers believed that prudence was the “chief” political virtue. Since conservatism is largely the act of conserving the wisdom and ideas of the past and applying them to today, many modern conservative thinkers have echoed similar sentiments (as I discussed in Part 1).
This doesn’t mean they viewed other virtues—such as courage, discernment, moderation, or integrity—as unimportant in our leaders. It means prudence was considered chief among them. Other virtues may receive higher praise in the spiritual realm (such as St. Paul’s trinity of faith, hope, and charity). But prudence is uniquely suited to the civic or political realm. In many ways it goes further than the other virtues we might expect in our leaders.
In Part 2 I quoted Gettysburg College professor Allen C. Guelzo in his article Prudence, Politics, and the Proclamation who demonstrated how prudence went beyond simple discernment in that it links the head to the heart. Guelzo further contends that prudence goes beyond even Benjamin Franklin’s most prized virtue of moderation: “Moderation is blind, which is why it necessarily leads people to grope forward slowly. Prudence, however, is based on foresight, which yields a discerning and dependable estimate of the way things are going.”
Moderation – Means without Ends
The trouble with moderation is that it leads to stagnation unless it is tethered to a larger perspective or goal. Moderation in all things makes sense as a guiding principle, but not as a THE guiding principle of one’s life. “What separates prudence from moderation is that ‘moderation’ is an attitude preoccupied with the integrity of means but not ends in political action. Moderation is a tragic attitude, because it understands only too well the constraints imposed by limited human resources and by human nature…Prudence, then, does not avoid action; if anything, it demands action of a particular kind.”
Philosophers and those with much time on their hands are often preoccupied with debates on the merits of means and ends. At the risk of oversimplifying the matter, the ends are the desired outcome whereas the means are the path one takes to get there. It shouldn’t tax the imagination much to understand that solely focusing on one or the other will lead to bad things. Means without ends gets us nowhere (for it has no sense of destination or purpose). Ends without means can take a noble goal (feeding the hungry) and achieve it using unscrupulous or even evil tactics (stealing food from others).
In the same manner, the virtue of moderation doesn’t get you far because all it’s focused on is the means (the appropriate quantity/quality of tactics or methods used) and never the overall purpose of those tactics/methods. But prudence weds the two together. Because prudence dares to ask what is most likely to come of an action (or inaction), it is just as concerned with where we are going as it is with what path we take to get there.
Absolutism – Ends without Means
But what of the opposite problem in which one is only focused on the ends? “At the other remove from prudence stands absolutism, which is about the integrity of ends without sufficient attention to the integrity of means so that it invests its servants with the attitude of disdain and certainty. This is the universe where it is supposed that wills are free from ultimate constraints and that only willing and power are lacking to attain a good end.”
Curiously, it is far more likely these days to hear someone advocating a particular political agenda out of a sense of absolutism rather than moderation—despite the fact moderation is a virtue and absolutism absolutely isn’t. This is observable in the single-issue-voter who refuses to deliberate over the complexities of certain issues and instead holds out that one highly specific issue is the only thing that truly matters.
What’s tragic about this approach is that—even if the single-issue-voter were technically “right” that their one issue was more important than anything else—absolutism always destroys the very thing it intends to save. It is common in Christian communities for believers to take an absolutist stance on pro-life matters. This leads to an unwillingness to consider the viability of candidates, an inability to recognize the societal, economic, and cultural forces that lead to abortions, the abandonment of other policy debates, and an increase in the divisiveness in the pro-life debate, making it all the more difficult to persuade others to the cause. The end result is more lives are lost as those supporting pro-life measures fail to take into account the likely outcomes of their solitary goal.
I attempted to show how support for a supposedly pro-life candidate over everything else can actually be a threat to the pro-life movement here, so I won’t belabor the point. The history of American politics is filled with examples of people or groups embracing absolutism, overplaying their hand, and inadvertently doing more damage to their cause than had they done nothing at all.
Prudence – Balancing Means and Ends
Moderation without prudence leads to stagnation. Absolutism without prudence leads to reckless progression. “Prudence, however, pays equal attention to the integrity of ends and of means,” continues Guelzo, “Prudence is an ironic rather than a tragic attitude, where the calculus of costs is critical but at the same time neither crucial nor incidental. Prudence prefers incremental progress to categorical solutions and fosters that progress through the offering of motives rather than expecting to change dispositions.”
As we discussed in Part 2, prudence is a check on our passions. And checking our passions is precisely what we must do if we are to set aside our winner-takes-all attitude and instead reach for what is less than ideal but actually attainable. There are times when a compromising attitude is the wrong approach. But this is rarely the case in matters of public policy. What’s more, our deliberative system of government is designed to withstand all-or-nothing changes. A prudent approach towards the issues we care deeply about is the surest way to make progress.
As St. Thomas Aquinas observed in his Treatise on Cardinal Virtues, “Prudence is forward-looking and so essentially involves the ability to order means to ends that are to be realized in the future—which is foresight.” True progress comes not by the timidity of complete moderation or the recklessness of absolutism but by charting a course between them. “Prudence requires that that we take care, when choosing good means to a good end, to avoid or to mitigate or at least to anticipate those evils that will likely result from a good act that we contemplate doing. So it is by caution that we take steps, if necessary, to avoid such evils. So to be cautious is to be on the lookout especially for the bad consequences of a contemplated action.”
Those bad consequences are precisely what makes prudence so important. It’s not just the corrupt or power-hungry leaders we must fear, but also those with the best of intentions who do not carefully think through the likely outcomes of their actions. In Part 4 we’ll turn our attention to some of the ways in which policy proposals that may sound great at first do not past the test of prudence.